A decade after the official launch of Canada’s first synchrotron in Saskatoon, many members of the nation’s research community might start to wonder how they ever managed without this powerful investigative resource. For his part, University of Saskatchewan biochemist Miroslaw Cygler points to the solution of no fewer than 500 protein structures as evidence of a significant return on the major investment in scientific infrastructure known as the Canadian Light Source (CLS).

That milestone was recently announced by the Canadian Macromolecular Crystallography Facility (CMCF), which has operated one of the synchrotron’s beamlines as a dedicated protein analysis site since 2006; a second beamline was added in 2011. Over that time, about 75 principal investigators across the country have become part of CMCF, along with some American researchers and companies that also share a need to use synchrotron radiation to achieve the necessary resolution for determining the arrangement of protein crystals, which are rather weak diffractors of X-rays. “We have more than 70 Canadian labs that rely on these beamlines to conduct their structural biology research,” says Cygler, who chairs CMCF’s beam line advisory team.

While members of these labs sometimes make pilgrimages to the CLS in order to carry out this work, many more can do so from wherever they happen to be located. An efficient “mail-in” system enables samples to be sent to Saskatoon, where they can be used to measure diffraction data by the highly experienced staff familiar with the instrumentation. The researchers also have an option to use the robotics and software that allows them to carry out the experiment remotely, which saves them time and money.  

Besides the sheer number of proteins that have been analyzed, Cygler also points to upwards of 300 scientific papers that have been generated directly by activity at the CMCF. “This is a very clear indicator that the facility is productive,” he says, adding that the high calibre of this activity is reflected by the fact that most of these publications have been in leading journals. “Those beamlines have become the mainstay of structural biology research done in Canada.”